Thursday, November 5, 2009

Swimming Blind

Dread filled every fiber of my being. Mama was acting strange again. No house cleaning, no cooking and most alarmingly she was not taking care of baby sis who at two needed constant attention. She would just sit on the living room sofa, hair uncharacteristically unkempt and read her Bible.

My brother Wayne who at thirteen was a year older than I voiced what we were both thinking. "She's having another nervous breakdown."

There were no relatives we could call or friends of the family, so Wayne and I decided we would take turns staying home from school and hope that Mama would recovering a few days. She didn't.

The cooking fell to me, as my brother's idea of a balanced meal was a stick of butter mixed with a half cup of sugar. He had been discovered several times hiding in the bathroom devouring his booty from a kitchen raid.

Mama's current mental breakdown had begun shortly after her live-in boyfriend Willie had been arrested and hauled back to Missouri to answer charges of grand theft. He had never returned the huge moving truck he had rented to move us to California, nor had he received permission to take it out of the state of Missouri, let alone all the way to California. Willie wasn't a bad person, but critical thinking just wasn't his forte. He had intended to just return it, no harm, no foul, but he did not reckon with the local criminal element.

They had rented half of a duplex in the Oakwood community of Venice, ideally situated a mile from the beach Mama so loved. The neighborhood was mostly populated with blacks and Hispanics, low income of course. Unable to park the huge truck on the narrow street, Willie parked it a few houses down in a vacant dirt lot. The next morning the trucks' huge tires were missing as was Willie's backup plan. So the truck just sat there in the dirt lot for several weeks as the local scavengers picked it's corpse clean, until Willie was arrested.

Mama was getting worse, most of the time in a semi comatose state where she had to be fed adn led around by the hand. It really hurt seeing her like that. I prayed hard very night that God would help her.

A rush of relief coursed through me when Willie called from the jail. I urgently told him about Mama's condition, and asked what we should do. His answer shocked and angered me. When my brother returned home from school I relayed Willie's instructions. He frowned, and agreed we could not folow the 'plum dummy's' suggestion and just "Slap her out of it."

After an untold number of days had passed, the odor from Mama's unwashed body was becoming overwhelming. I ran some bubbly, scented bathwater and let her to the bathroom. It was very uncomfortable undressing her, and I tired to avert my eyes as much as possible from her nakedness. I explained that she needed to take a bath. She just stood there vacantly staring ahead.

More anxiety crept over me. There was no way I could wash her. Louder and more insistently I repeated my instructions. When I heard a murmured "Okay" I hurriedly stepped out, shut the door and sat on a chair a few feet away.

A minute later my heart stopped when I heard a sickening loud thud like a watermelon being thrown on the ground. I snatched open the door to find her sprawled on the floor. She had collapsed right where I had left her and smacked her head on the ground.

Tears sprang from my eyes, I lifted her to a sitting position and was overjoyed to see no blood and hear her say she was okay. More lucid now, I assisted her into the tub and washed her back for her. Then I handed her the soapy washcloth and told her she would have to finish and then waited until I saw she had started washing herself. Then I waited outside the partially ajar door listening for any sounds of peril, and berated myself for leaving her standing in the middle of the bathroom floor.

As more days passed we were growing more desperate. We tried to call various hospitals, but they couldn't or wouldn't help, advising us to call the police which I could not bring myself to do. My mother was not a criminal!

Soon we were running low on food and nearly had used up the book of food stamps we had found in her purse.

One ugly day everything came to a head. Mama had become more and more delusional, and kept trying to leave the house so Wayne locked her in her bedroom. I came home from school to find that our nine month old dog Missy, an affectionate brown and black mutt had her eye put out by Mama.

Wayne had heard Mama scream from the back yard She had climbed out the bedroom window and had tumbled down on the grass and Missy had affectionately jumped on her. In her delusion, she thought that Missy was some sort of monster and had fought her off, poking out one of her eyes in the struggle.

I tried to comfort a bewildered Missy, who alternately would lick my face and paw confusedly at her damaged, smashed-in eye.

Wayne and I agreed we had to do something. Mama may try to escape again or even hurt baby sis, and Missy needed help. We tried another hospital. Again, they told us to call the police.

An hour later we opened the door for the two beefy LAPD cops, who rushed in and flung Mama to the floor and pinned her to the ground. She screamed once and tried to struggle, and I yelled that they were hurting her, but they went right ahead. The cop who had his knee in her back demanded to know, "What's she on?"

We both looked at him in incomprehension while Heidi in her playpen bawled.

"What drug is she on?" the cop yelled. I yelled back, "She's not on anything she's having a nervous breakdown!" He looked at me dubiously.

They put her in the squad car and searched the house for drugs. Not finding any, Wayne, sis and I were taken to the police station in another car.

Wayne and I spent several weeks in a foster home and sis in another, until one day Willie and Mama picked us up. She seemed fine. I was dismayed to learn that the dog pound had put Missy 'to sleep'.

When we got home I stared at the fish aquarium Mama loved. Partially eaten or pale fish corpses littered the 20 gallon tank.

Out of twenty or so fish, only three remained: the blue Siamese fighting fish whose long, elegant fins were jagged in places where he had been attacked; the Jack Dempsey--the obvious predator-- looked healthy, but the soul surviving member of a pair of Oscars was missing several scales, and half of his bedraggled fins had been eaten.

I watched as he jerkily swam around, often bumping into the glass, empty sockets where his eyes had been.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Adrift in an Angry Sea

I did not discover until I was 28 years old that I was angry with my mother.

That suppressed anger would play a crucial role in the self-destructive course I would take during my adolescence.

It had taken a series of penetrating questions from a young female psychologist in the county jail to wrench the truth from the jawbone of denial. Like a stubborn, decayed molar it had resisted all efforts of extraction until that point in my life.

Later that day, after the lights were turned off, I lay on the thin, lumpy mattress. Oddly comforted by the darkness I further explored those bitter feelings. I was surprised and perturbed by how palpable the anger felt.

I felt disloyal. I loved my mother. She was always warm, generous, loving and attentive to us--even to to the point of being over-protective--so how could I harbor such seething, writhing anger towards her? It just seemed so wrong.

As I stared at the bars on the front of my cell, memories flickered across them bringing reluctant clarity.

I thought about the good homes mama had abandoned for reasons which even to my young mind seemed downright silly. There was the time when she moved out of the three bedroom duplex house Grandpa had purchased for her and himself a year earlier rather than battle Grandpa's new wife over ownership when he died (and the will disappeared). Mama even refused the wife's offer to let mama stay in the duplex for as long as she wished.

The next thing I knew we were living in a worn-down, one room apartment in a slum building that had no hot water and a communal toilet outside in the hallway.

Then there was the issue of severing all ties with my father and his relatives when he supposedly 'kidnapped' my brother and myself when their marriage fell apart. Including making sure she did not know where she resided; a story I accepted as gospel until the age of ten when her second two year marriage went belly up. Shortly thereafter she moved back to California (from Missouri) and left no forwarding address or phone number to my newly born sister's father. And he was a damn good man. Worked two jobs, didn't drink, curse or use drugs...just had that good ol' problem dating back to Biblical times...couldn't keep the ol' penis confined to the marital bed.

After that repeat performance with sis' father I began to suspect something similar had happened with my father before the 'kidnapping'.

It was her mental breakdowns, though, that turned my world upside down. The first one I knew about plowed through our little family when I was a teen. Mama had found out her husband Kennion had impregnated a seventeen year old girl so she kicked him out.

My brother, sister and I were shuffled off to foster shelters until my mother was released from the mental hospital several weeks later.

The second breakdown occurred two years later and was especially torturous for me and left me with a permanent sense of being adrift in a boat with no sail and no oars.

To be continued.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Cruel Intentions Part 2

My thoughts returned to the present. His eyes closed, Elijah was making feeble movements with one of his arms. Over and over he would reach down toward his feet.

The movement drew forth an unforgettable memory for me. I was thirteen and a German Shepherd had just been slammed into by a speeding car. Unconscious on its side, blood matting its fur and pouring from it's nose and mouth; its limbs were making weak jerky paddling motions as if still answering some last instinctive impulse to flee.

Fifteen minutes had passed since the guards left our door. I swore under my breath. What was taking those damn medical staffers so long?

Twenty minutes passed. I went to the window in the door. Still no sign of anyone. Twenty five minutes passed. This is sheer madness! I paced the cell floor.

At thirty minutes I renewed my pounding on the door. Again, concerned inmates joined in my calls for help. Our collective yells of "Man Down!" thundered throughout the building, yet no one came.

My hands would become swollen, voice hoarse, and fifteen more precious minutes would disappear before two guards came to see what the emergency was. These two guards were from the day shift and remembered Elijah's poor condition from the previous day and acted quickly.

Fear, anger and frustration overwhelmed me as I watched them carry him away on a stretcher. He was now as still as a corpse. An ambulance rushed him to an emergency room at a local hospital. I was unable to discover more than that.

Outraged at his cruel treatment, the following day I fired off letters to Governor Schwarzenegger, the state Inspector General, a state senator and a federal judge. I provided copies of the letters to the chief of the medical staff at our prison. Hopefully, if Elijah survived, the extra attention (or threat of it) would ensure he received adequate medical care; and if he did not, then at least prison officials would find it difficult to bury.

Most importantly, perhaps these letters would prevent other inmates from needlessly suffering similar, shameful neglect that could cost them their lives. I operated under no delusions about the letters. At the California Correctional Institution--Tehachapi-- reprisals from prison officials were as prevalent as the stale air we breathed.

I was later to discover that the first two guards who responded that bleak morning did not alert anyone to the medical emergency and merely departed for their homes when their shifts ended. Such is the callous tissue that surrounds some men's' hearts.

Thankfully, Elijah did survive his ordeal. As fortune would have it, a top notch brain surgeon happened to be on duty and successfully operated on the aneurysm that had nearly snuffed out his life. I hear he has almost fully recovered.

As for myself, five weeks later, prison officials would repeatedly target me, falsely claiming I was involved in prison gang activity and conspiracies to assault staff (there would be no official disciplinary charges) and eventually succeeded in having me indefinitely confined in solitary isolation at the infamous Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison...where I still reside.

If I had a chance to do it all over again? I think you know... I wouldn't change a thing.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Cruel Intentions

Introduction: In February 2006 the US District Court found that inadequate health care at California Department of Corrections facilities was killing inmates at the rate of 60 per year.

Certain sounds you eventually grow accustomed to in prison--steel doors clanging shut, the jangle of guards' key rings as they saunter by, even the sound of your cellmates' urine splashing into the toilet.

Other sounds grab your attention and raise your hackles in an instinctive rush of survival adrenaline. Even the slightest difference in a normal sound can wake you out of a sound sleep or pull your attention from the numbness of boredom into full-alert.

It was just after 5:00 am on February 3, 2007. A not-quite-right noise dragged me from the depths of sleep. My eyes adjusted to the dim light in the cell and a chill swept over me. My cellmate was standing near the front of the cell in his underwear urinating on the floor of the cell. He then began wobbling back toward the bunk waving an arm searchingly back and forth as if blind.

I guided him back to the lower bunk and asked if he was okay. His only response was to lie down on his side and curl up in a fetal position.

Worried, I turned on the cell light to see him better. Fear clutched at my intestines and I swore under my breath.

There were blood stains all over his sheets and blankets. A steady trickle coming out of his nostrils ran over a thick, caked-up trail of congealed blood that led down one side of his face.

I called his name; gently at first, then with increasing volume and urgency. Still he did not respond. Springing to the cell door, I hammered on it with my fists and yelled "Man Down!" to alert guards to the medical emergency. Even though the early morning watch was still on, there were at least two guards stationed in our building which housed about a hundred inmates.

Again and again I pounded on the door and yelled "Man down!" Other concerned inmates awakened by the calls for help, added their voices to mine. I knew the guards would respond quickly as this is universally recognized as a call for emergency medical help.

Though their office was less than thirty yards away, five minutes passed as I continued to yell for help. Ten minutes. Surely, I thought, the guards could not ignore this emergency.

At least 15 minutes passed before two guards casually walked up to our cell door. Quickly I explained about Elijah's deteriorated and non-responsive condition. I showed them the bloody pedding and recounted his earlier intensive head pain and relayed my fear he was suffering from a stroke. The guards, somewhat disdainfully, said they would summon medical help.

As I cleaned up the urine I thought about my cellmate and the previous days' events. Hot spikes of anger flashed within.

An African American in his late twenties, Elijah was a rare prisoner. Humble, considerate, and respectful of others, he was the sort of person all prisoners liked regardless of their race or creed. He was a friendly soul in an unfriendly place.

The previous day, during the noon hour in our cell, he had been suddenly stricken with a massive, debilitating headache. The pain contorted his features, squeezed involuntary gasps from his lips and literally knocked him to his knees. In growing alarm I watched him violently heave the contents of his stomach into the toilet. I summoned the guards and they escorted him to the medical clinic.

A short time later Elijah, propped up between two guards, skin ashen and looking worse than when he departed, was returned to the cell.

As he managed to tell me in between grimaces of pain what occurred in the medical clinic, I could only shake my head in disgust. The head nurse performed a cursory examination herself and pronounced he was 'faking it'. Despite Elijah's protests, she insisted he be returned to his cell, refusing to allow him to see the doctor who was a mere few feet away in the very next cubicle.

I feared for his life. Medical staff had not refilled his prescription for high-blood pressure medicine. Despite his repeated written submissions requesting a refill, it had been 3 weeks.

In the Los Angeles County Jail, I had know a robust Cuban inmate in his late thirties who had also complained of similar intense headaches that the medical staff turned away day after day. Before a week had passed he was found on morning curled in a fetal ball...dead from a burst blood vessel in his brain.

Every time the guards came by to count or to feed us, I begged them to help Elijah get medical attention. They said there was nothing they could do as it was "Medicals' 'call'".

As the minutes and hours slowly ticked away his pain became worse and he became more groggy. It was agonizing to watch him wracked with dry heaves, head hanging over the toilet. Never had I felt so helpless and frustrated to prevent another person's suffering. I could only watch as he tried to go to sleep shivering and shaking beneath four blankets. Finally, exhaustion claimed him and he slept. Perhaps an hour later, around midnight, I dozed off also.